Adventures in Ethics and Science

This post, originally posted 8 January 2006 on the old site, responds to an email I got after the last post. Given John’s recent post on Pro-Test, the questions are still timely.

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I received an email from a reader in response to my last post on PETA’s exposing of problems with the treatment of research animals at UNC. The reader pointed me to the website of an organization concerned with the treatment of lab animals in the Research Triangle, And, she wrote the following:

Some people may think that PETA is extreme. However, the true “extreme” is what happens to animals in labs. If the public knew, most would be outraged. But, of course our government hides such things very well. Those researchers who abuse animals in labs (which is ALL researchers, by my definition), cannot do an about turn and go home and not abuse animals or humans at their homes. Animal researchers are abusers, and there is enough research on people who abuse to know that abuse does not occur in isolation. The entire industry must change.

There are a bunch of claims here, some of which I’m going to pretty much leave alone because I don’t have the expertise to evaluate them. Frankly, I don’t know whether even the folks we would all agree are abusing animals in the lab are full-fledged abusers who cannot help but go forth and abuse spouses, children, family pets, neighbors, and such. (I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist, after all.) And, while I’d like to believe that the public would be outraged at unambigous cases of animal abuse, the public seems not to be outraged by quite a lot of things that I find outrageous.

I would, however, like to consider the claim that ALL researchers who do research with animals are abusing those animals.

First, I imagine there may be some research projects involving animal subjects where it’s hard to locate an actual harm to the animals. (Consider, for example, positive reinforcement experiments that train pigeons to type. The pigeons are put in the unnatural position of having to interact with a typewriter, but they get food, are protected from predators, etc. Is this a worse life than scrounging through garbage and avoiding city buses? What if we throw in a daily hot stone massage?) For the sake of argument, let’s set those aside.

I take it the animal research that is of real concern is that which brings about pain in the animals, or that which ends with the animals being “sacrificed” (i.e., killed). If we agree that animal pain and killing of animals are harms to be avoided (and not everyone will — the U.S. is a meat eating nation, after all), does that mean that all research that causes animal pain or the killing of animals ought to be stopped?

We’d need to consider the sorts of harms that might come from ceasing animal research. It would, for example, have a marked effect on biomedical research — including research with human subjects. The very first item in the Basic Principles in the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki reads:

Biomedical research involving human subjects must conform to generally accepted scientific principles and should be based on adequately performed laboratory and animal experimentation and on a thorough knowledge of the scientific literature.

(Emphasis added.)

In other words, ceasing research with animals heads off much new biomedical research with humans. You can’t test a new drug on humans if it hasn’t yet been tested in the appropriate animal system, no matter how promising that new drug may be. Unless WMA were to make significant revisions in the Declaration of Helsinki, an end to animal experimentation might mean an end to drug development and other lines of biomedical research. Ending animal suffering in the lab might mean there is more human suffering that we’re unable to address with medical treatment.

Of course, there’s the legitimate question of whether animal models are actually adequate models for the human conditions such biomedical science aims to address. (I’ve been told that we could cure most mouse cancers in fairly short order, but we’re still quite a ways off on the human cancers the mouse cancers were intended to model.) Lately, researchers have developed an array of alternatives to animal research (in vitro studies, computer models, etc.), but these approaches have their limits, too. Surely the best system for studying human diseases and their treatments would be humans, but experimentation on humans is no less ethically problematic than research on animals.

Goodness of fit between a model and the system that is the target of the modeling is something scientists have to grapple with all the time. There are always ways that the model departs from the target. The practical question is how to work out models that get the important features of the target right. It may be the case that, imperfect as animal models are, they are still the best models we have for certain phenomena we are trying to figure out. But especially when our model systems come with ethical costs (not only animal research but epidemiological studies with humans), it seems like critically examining the model and keeping an eye out for alternative models that might work better is a good idea.

One could object that some of the research done with animals is simply unnecessary. For example, two of the research studies flagged by SERAT as especially problematic are a study of binge-drinking using rats and a study of gambling using primates. Even if binge-drinking and gambling are human behaviors that are problematic and need to be addressed, it’s not obvious that the only ways to address them require a complete understanding of the underlying physiological mechanisms of these behaviors. Even if the physiology of binge-drinking or compulsive gambling were to remain something of a black box, there might be ways to change the environment to head off these behaviors.

Scientists might respond that knowing the physiological mechanism is of value even if we don’t need that knowledge to solve the problem of heading off harmful behavior. Sometimes knowledge is a good in itself. However, if that knowledge comes at a cost, it’s worth considering how that cost stacks up against the value of that knowledge. (Consider the costs of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, whose aim was knowledge about the natural history of untreated syphilis. Certainly, such information would have value, but its value didn’t justify the harms it brought to the subjects of the experiment.) So, the fact that scientists are curious and would like to get a piece of information does not, in itself, justify all the costs that getting to that knowledge might incur.

Careful readers that you are, you will have noticed that I’ve taken a consequentialist approach to this issue — one of balancing competing harms and benefits. While this is how most of those who worry about ethical use of animals usually frame the problem, there are others who feel that a more Kantian approach is in order. (Maybe “Kantian” is not quite the right label, since Kant was concerned with respect for persons, and with not undermining the rational capacity in oneself or others. But stick with me here.) In research with human subjects, there are some lines you are not allowed to cross, regardless of the potential benefits of crossing them. For example, here are two items in the Helsinki Declaration’s principles governing non-therapeutic research with human subjects:

1. In the purely scientific application of medical research carried out on a human being, it is the duty of the physician to remain the protector of the life and health of that person on whom biomedical research is being carried out.

4. In research on man, the interest of science and society should never take precedence over considerations related to the well-being of the subject.

(Emphasis added.)
The health and the life of a human research subject are always to be protected by the researcher. No matter what the payoff might be, whether in terms of solving practical problems for society or building scientific knowledge, you can’t sacrifice the subject’s health or life. This is a non-negotiable point — like Kant’s respect for persons — around which your consequentialist calculations have to work.

Perhaps there are such lines we ought to recognize with animals in scientific research. I think when they are working as they should, IACUCs are trying to find and respect those lines. But it is also clear that we live in a society that has few qualms about doing fairly nasty things to animals for the sake of cheap food production, or entertainment (think cock-fights), or biker-wear. That society at large doesn’t recognize a clear line separating appropriate and inappropriate ways to treat animals doesn’t mean there isn’t a line there we should recognize (as feminists, anti-racists, and the like will be happy to explain to you). My own hunch is that within a few generations, we may get to a point where certain ways of treating animals that are prevalent right now become unthinkable. But, not having gotten to that point makes it harder to argue for thoroughgoing changes in the rules for animal experimentation. As the situation at UNC illustrates, sometimes it’s hard to get people to even follow the rules that are in place.

That said, let me suggest again that it is a strength of the community of scientists that scientists don’t all march in lockstep on the matter of what humane treatment of laboratory animals require. Because different scientists have different views on this matter, they’re more likely to actually talk to each other about it. In the course of these talks, scientists sometimes come up with clever strategies to get more scientific information with less — or no — animal harm. Given that scientists, as a group, have shown themselves to be quite good at answering hard questions using limited data, it might not take all that long for them to work out good ways to eliminate the need for animals in certain research projects, and to minimize the need for animals in others.

And scientists probably ought to care about animal-use worries of the public, not just of other scientists. At the same time, though, scientists should be ready to explain to the public how their animal use is essential to the research, and how that research benefits the public. Then, if members of the public disagree with the scientists (e.g., deciding to forego a bird flu vaccine if it involves animal research of which these members of the public do not approve), that’s their choice. If no one used a medical treatment because of ethical qualms, the demand for that treatment would evaporate, and the researchers would turn their attentions elsewhere.

So, to my email correspondent: I’m not sure I think the problem of animal research is as black-and-white as you think it is. But, I’m inclined to think that science is moving toward higher standards for ethical use of animals, at least gradually. And, I think continued discussion on this issue is how that movement happens.


  1. #1 Melissa
    June 11, 2006

    If the public knew what goes on in slaughterhouses, they would be outraged. I’m sorry, but I work in both animal and food research and the work I do with rats is done far more carefully and humanely than the way slaughterhouses operate. There is also that nice slippery slope argument. Yes, the research I’ve worked on kills rats. Like most people I work with, I don’t believe pain is justified for no reason. We believe we are helping people. I see no reason why that means I’d go hit my dog or my husband. Just as eating meat and feeding my snake live rats doesn’t correlate with abuse. If I killed rats for fun it would be different.

    However, I have heard of abuse and I do think researchers should be subject to punishment when it happens. I’m not sure the research community is taking people into enough account for that sort of thing. I agree there need to be some lines that are not crossed.

    I also think that we should question whether or not rats and pigeons even correlate with humans for certain things. There needs to be more research in that area.

  2. #2 Gerry L
    June 11, 2006

    Janet concluded:
    “I’m inclined to think that science is moving toward higher standards for ethical use of animals, at least gradually. And, I think continued discussion on this issue is how that movement happens.”

    Yes, continued discussion is definitely needed. Check out this recent announcement:

    MUSC to open primate research facility
    Associated Press, May 28, 2006

    In particular, this paragraph:
    “The monkeys’ brain activity will be recorded while they perform certain tasks. Individual monkeys will be studied for three to five years before they are euthanized and used for anatomy experiments, Aston-Jones said.”

    I have spent time at a facility where chimpanzees and monkeys used to be warehoused for research and I have seen pictures of their treatment. I have gotten to know chimps who have survived years of experimentation and isolation. The are amazingly resilient, but many are seriously damaged. The idea that people are continuing to breed primates just so they can experiment on them and then dump or euthanize them should be very troubling to people who care about animals.

  3. #3 David Harmon
    June 11, 2006

    “Kant was concerned with respect for persons, and with not undermining the rational capacity in oneself or others.”

    I suspect part of the issue is that the protesters are considering animals as persons! Consider that the definition of a “human being” can be referred to some fairly unambiguous tests. (Yeah, severely damaged humans are an issue, but that’s a separate conflict….)

    In contrast, the concept of a “person” is a social construction. I can find plenty of people who will eagerly tell you that their dog is a person… and frankly, I don’t think they’re completely wrong. The smarter dogs certainly have impressive social abilities, and as pets, they have a fairly solid place in human society. At the same time, they certainly don’t have the full capabilities of an adult human — I’d guess their intelligence and verbal understanding maxes out somewhere around that of a young toddler, probably under 2 years old. (I doubt it’s coincidence that dogs take about 1-2 years to reach maturity.)

    I feel that in order to sort out this sort of question, it’s necessary to admit the idea of a “partial person” — a creature that has some standing above “object” in our moral heirarchy, but which clearly stands below a human. This matches nicely with a dog’s role as a “stand-in” for human companionship, and its subordinate but definite place in society. Given this idea, we are then free to rank various animals in a heirarchy of value, and decide what levels of consideration we owe to various levels of “personhood”.

    If you hadn’t guessed by now, I consider the idea that “any animal’s life is no less valuable than a human’s life”, to be dangerous nonsense — dangerous, because that equation goes both ways, and can easily lead to devaluing human lives, as it does with PETA et al. But that doesn’t mean we can concern ourselves at all with animal welfare — it just mean we need to set priorities, and think beyond the rigid framework of “human/other”. In short, we need to balance the idea that we humans are more important than animals (at least to us humans), with the idea that other things are important too, and “less important” does not equal “not important”.

    But of course, that involves breaking loose from binary thinking, and some people — nominally fully human — seem to have a problem with that. According to psychology, binary thinking is characteristic of infants. Grownups are supposed to have learned better. Of course, that leads to the question of just how much consideration to give a human with dubious moral capacity. Personally, I wouldn’t vivisect them — but I wouldn’t let them tell me what to do, either! (Occasionally I’m tempted to taunt them, but I do try to be better than that. 😉 )

  4. #4 Dianne
    June 11, 2006

    I’ve only ever experimented on mice and rats, but I have a feeling that if I treated a mouse that I found in my house the way I treat my lab mice the average person would wonder why I was making so much effort to be nice to the vermin rather than just killing them by the most efficient and hands-off means available. Rat/mouse poison is usually either coumadin (animal dies of internal bleeding) or arsenic. Or glue traps that cause the animal to starve to death. Is anesthetizing the animal and breaking its neck under anesthesia really more inhumane than any of the mouse control options used in everyday life? (OK, what I did with the corpses–cut off the legs and flush PBS through to get the bone marrow–might flip some people out more than tossing the body in the trash, but it causes no pain or suffering to the animal.)

  5. #5 Pony
    June 11, 2006

    PETA has some nerve bleeding over research animals considering how they devalue female human life. They’re not beyond using porn to appeal to the young males who make up the majority of their membership to get their point across. It comes across loud and clear, but not quite how PETA intended:

  6. #6 Lab Lemming
    June 12, 2006

    Why should this be a “we” issue at all? Like Mormons and Pentecostals, animal rights activists have a right to proselytize, and I respect that. But that doesn’t mean I should feel any compulsion to listen, much less discuss. The diversity of human-animal relationships in the world’s cultures is rich and fascinating. If my Australian colleague wants to wear no leather and eat no meat, that’s fine. If my Brazilian colleague wants to sacrifice a chicken to the candomblĂ© gods of soccer, that’s fine too. The only futile task would be to develop a consensus policy that pleases both of them. If PETA wants to start giving research grants, they have every right to specify the animal welfare conditions for the research that they fund. But they have no business expecting anybody else to care.

  7. #7 Joy
    June 12, 2006

    I think that the consequential approach is the best to take in this case. If the PETA reps were faced with a decision between a potential life saving drugs with animal testing, and the life/pain of the animal, I am assuming that they would choose the life of a human. To make it more personal, what if it was their own life they were saving.

    Second, it seems ludicurous that the nation of meat eaters, argues about pain to animals when multitudes of animals are slaughtered everyday for food. It’s highly hypocritical of a meat eating PETA rep to argue that line.

    Until, simulations are good enough for drug testing, I don’t see any options except for animal or human testing..

  8. #8 Mouth of the Yellow River
    June 12, 2006

    Ni hao! Konnichi Wa! Haven’t been back since your ethical dilemma with the backyard birds of whose “blood” I remember is on your hands due to inaction and deliberation, leaving the poor little lives to the ants, shall we say subjecting them to ant style viva-section. You could have saved them or at least made them immortal by eating the eggs with cold soba (buckwheat noodles), soy sauce and wasabi as I pointed out.

    My experience when explaining to the average public in fundraising efforts to support our ever increasing animal costs is shock and surprise that this pervasive mentality of which PETA are the extremists has been able to penetrate the culture and particularly government regulations related to government funding animal work as far as it has. If the general public knew the truth of these destructive ideologues and the blood of untold suffering of current and future humans and animals that is on the hands of these socio(pathological)-ideologues due to research efforts oriented toward both human (medical) and animal (veterinarian) welfare that has been indirectly inhibited , I think there might be a revolution against them distasteful to us all.

    This is indeed another issue on which lab scientists closeted in their laboratories should rise up and become activists to combat this idiocy, equal in intensity to the threat posed by creationists and anthropomorphic global warming enthusiasts.

    On average research animals are treated orders of magnitude more humanely than humans themselves worldwide and companion animals (pets). This same hypocritical crowd should rise up in arms over pet owners who keep suffering lives under their dominion in cramped urban environments, breed them to all sorts of obscene sideshow sensations (slobbering bulldogs, hairless shivering chihuahuas, achondroplastic dachhunds, bobtail cats, etc.) and keep them suffering to decrepit states far beyond their lifespan without euthaniasia just to satisfy their slave mentality egos to subjugate and be licked in the face.


  9. #9 Kenny Easwaran
    June 13, 2006

    Lab Lemming – I think you’re missing at least some of the point of the protest. Obviously no one is saying that PETA shouldn’t be allowed to voice their concerns. The policy you seem to be suggesting allows people to act as they like, so that some can be vegetarians, some can say all they want about protecting animals, and some can eat and torture animals for fun if they want. Everyone gets what they want, right?

    Except the PETA people don’t just want to express their disapproval, they actually think there is a wrong being done here that should be stopped.

    There was a South Park episode that seemed to me to have a similar confusion. Cartman goes back in time and discovers what the Founding Fathers would have thought of the Iraq war, and they realize that the right thing to do is let everyone have their way – the pro-war people get to have a war, and the anti-war people get to have a protest. So everyone can get along.

    Except that the desire wasn’t just to express their opinions, the desire was for some abuses to stop. So we really do need to develop a policy one way or another. Not everyone’s going to be happy, but not developing a policy is itself one policy (and it’s one that’s quite congenial to abuses).

  10. #10 outeast
    June 14, 2006

    I think Kenny has hios finger on the nub: Lab Lenning’s argument begs ther question because the PETA (etc) case is that animals have thge right to be treated as persons. Simply saying ‘they have the right to say what they like, but they have to accept I have the right to do as I do’ is to demand that they cede the very point they are arguing. If animals have (or should have) rights of personhood then neither Lab lemming nor anyone else has the right to perform animal experiments.

    Ultimately, there can be debate over – the kind of debate Janet is engaging in – but someone who simply believes that humans have no right to kill other species for purely human gain will never be a part of that debate.

    And as to the question of prioritization of human/animal life in medical experiments, I have met people who feel that if we want advances that benefit ourselves alone then we have the right to exact the costs on ourselves alone. That position is morally consistent, even if it’s not one I am comfortable with!

    As to grey areas: much animal research, though, essentially sacrifices animal life to knowledge which may never lead to actual medical advances, as Janet said; there is also education, with vast numbers of animals dying that we may train scientists, doctors, etc – where again there is no novel gain (ie no new discoveries or treaments as a direct consequence of the research). These lie in a grey area where the cost:gain equation is more complex. For myself, I generally come down on the side of animal experimentation – dammit, I like competent doctors, and I’m also excited by knowledge for its own sake – but I’m not confident that in doing so I am being morally consistent or ‘right’.

  11. #11 Nick Anthis
    June 14, 2006

    I agree. Coming from Oxford, where both sides try to present this as a black and white issue, it’s nice to see a rational debate on these issues, and I’ve explored the topic a little bit on my blog as well. I even went to an animal rights protest back in January, and I found that the participants there by and large were not interested in having this kind of discussion.

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